The Jesuits have begun working on the cause for the beatification of a Filipino Jesuit Scholastic, Richard “Richie” Fernando SJ, who died saving several people from a grenade blast in Cambodia in 1996.
In a letter to the Province on July 31, the Feast of St Ignatius of Loyola, Philippine Provincial Fr Antonio Moreno SJ announced that Fr Arturo Sosa SJ, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, had endorsed his proposal to formally initiate the cause of Richie Fernando.
The move was made possible because of the recent changes Pope Francis has made to sainthood qualifications. This new path to sainthood centres on the “offer of life”, i.e. people who gave up their lives freely in a heroic act of loving service for others.
During his recent visit to Cambodia, Fr Sosa had seen the room where Fernando had been killed and had later offered a short, silent prayer in front of the stone memorial where the urn containing Fernando’s blood is buried.
Fernando was sent to Cambodia for his Regency in May 1995 in Banteay Prieb, the Jesuit vocational training centre for survivors of landmines and polio and people with learning disabilities. He quickly learnt enough Khmer to converse with the students, and was struck by their stories of survival during the Pol Pot regime.
On February 20, 1996, he wrote to his friend Fr Totet Banaynal SJ about how he was slowly becoming more involved and affected by the people, especially the disabled students. “I suddenly find myself feeling great love for them. If only I could follow Christ’s ways. If only I could help all of them as God would … I hope I could offer my life to them to the fullest.”
And offer his life he did.
On October 17, 1996, the Banteay Prieb staff, including Fernando, had a meeting with a disabled student named Sarom. Sarom had committed many offenses in the centre, such as gambling away the food money with the new students. The centre director pointed out to him that he had had many chances and many warnings, and could no longer stay in the centre. Since he had finished 10 months of study, he had learned enough to do a trade and could come back on graduation day. Sarom seemed to accept this, but after the meeting, he suddenly pulled out a hand grenade, and began to move towards a classroom full of students. Perhaps realising that the students could not escape because of the bars on the classroom window, Fernando jumped behind Sarom and held him by the arms.
“Let me go, teacher; I do not want to kill you,” Sarom pleaded. But Fernando continued to hold him and the grenade fell out of Sarom’s hand, hitting his artificial leg. It bounced behind the two of them and hit Fernando on the back of his head. As the grenade went off, Fernando fell to the floor still clasping Sarom, shielding him from the blast. In an instant, Fernando was dead. He was only 26.
Fr Johnny Go SJ recalled how he and other Jesuits in Manila took the news. “I still remember. I was in the Loyola House of Studies refectory for lunch, and then the news broke. Richie had been killed in a grenade explosion. We looked at one another with dread and disbelief, praying that the news was nothing more than a rumour. I remember confiding to my fellow seminarians then: ‘I’m really not sure whether in that split second to decide, I would choose to save myself or like Richie, die for others.’”
In his letter, Fr Moreno noted, “Since his death, various expressions of devotion to Richie have sprung up and continued, not just in the Philippines and Cambodia, but in other places as well”.
Fr Moreno stressed the importance of building a compelling case before the Vatican authorities, which will involve extensive data gathering, such as interviewing people, collecting evidence from those who knew him, getting his letters, writings, talks, and so forth. To facilitate the process, a team has been formed to do “the spadework that will underpin the promotion of Richie’s cause”. Fr Moreno also said that he “will collaborate with Bishop Tobias and the Diocese of Novaliches [Fernando’s home diocese] in support of this effort”.
“I ask the prayers of all in the Province to beg the Lord’s gracious assistance in this process that, if he so wills, it may prosper for the benefit of his people,” said Fr Moreno. He also thanked Fernando’s family “for so generously gifting the Society with him and for loyally standing by us over the years”.